Judge rules city violated state law when they had financial discussions during closed meetings

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — A Kern County judge issued a ruling this week that the city violated open-meetings laws when it held closed-session finance discussions in 2017.

Judge Stephen Schuett said in his ruling on Wednesday that city officials violated the Ralph M. Brown Act when it held multiple meetings with the City Council in closed session in fall 2017 regarding the city’s financial challenges and the need for more sales tax revenue to avoid staff cuts and facility closures. 

The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed in 2018 by the First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware, which were sent emails between city staff and council members as well as a copy of a presentation that was allegedly given during closed session by a source familiar with the discussions. 

The city eventually gave a similar presentation in public at a subsequent City Council meeting.  

 As part of the ruling, Schuett is requiring the city to record all closed-session meetings for a year.

“It is clear the city has demonstrated a pattern of past conduct that indicates the existence of potential future violations,” Schuett said in his ruling. “The City has been adamant that it has not violated the Brown Act by considering these issues in closed session. In light of that, the court may presume that the city will continue similar practices absent the court’s intervention.”

In addition to the recording requirement, the ruling also states that the petitioners are entitled to have their attorney’s fees and other costs paid for by the city. The amount has yet to be determined. 

The city must also release documents requested by the organizations under the California Public Records Act related to the closed-session meetings. 

The city has claimed that there were no violations of the Brown Act, as the closed-session meetings were held under the legal exemption of “potential litigation.”

However, Schuett said in his ruling that wide-ranging financial discussions that have a significant impact on the public do not fall under that exemption, as there is not a specific, direct correlation to litigation. 

“The fact that material may be sensitive, embarrassing or controversial does not justify application of closed session unless it is authorized by some specific exception,” the ruling states. “These issues are clearly outside the limited scope of the closed session related to potential litigation…and the presentation and discussion of those issues constitutes a violation of the Brown Act.”

David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said that he was happy with the outcome of the lawsuit. 

“It took a long time, but fortunately Judge Schuett set the City of Bakersfield straight,” he said. “We’re grateful that the case has resolved as it has. Hopefully this will lead to changes in the ways the city’s been operating.”

The city declined to provide comment for this story, referring all media inquiries to the Attorney’s Office.

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